Many Jewish World readers are descendants of immigrants from Ukraine. Three of my four grandparents came from Ukraine — Kiev and Odessa; Grandpa Specktor came from Tiraspol, in what is now called Moldova, located on Ukraine’s western border.
I’ve never felt the tug of roots, as it pertains to a sentimental journey back to Ukraine. Mostly I’m glad that my grandparents got out when the getting was good (before they were murdered by Cossacks), and I was raised in the U.S.A., with all of its exciting culture and nonstop wars.
Actually, one branch of my maternal family didn’t leave during the Russian revolution and civil war, and waited until the demise of the Soviet Union to pack up and move to Israel. I finally met those cousins in Tel Aviv, in 2004.
Perhaps some readers have watched recent epochal events unfold in Ukraine, and reflected on their ancestral home. A mass uprising last week forced Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovych to flee Kiev, along with his younger girlfriend and some security troops; as the AJW went to press this week, no one seems to know of his whereabouts.
There is now a power vacuum in Ukraine, which reportedly is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy — “a looming economic disaster,” according to Tuesday’s New York Times. The newspaper reports that an acting prime minister will be named and a provisional government installed. Then those in charge can begin looking for loans from the IMF and western nations to keep Ukraine afloat. It remains to be seen how Putin will respond to the new leadership in Ukraine. He can exact more economic pain through trade sanctions and raising the price of gas.
To briefly recap, Yanukovych decided to back off from an agreement with the European Union, and turned instead to Russia for a $15 billion bailout package and political cover. Several months of civic unrest came to a head last week, when protests in Kiev turned violent; dozens of protesters, and several police officers, were killed in confrontations in and around Independence Square.
A fascinating analysis of the troubles in Ukraine is provided by Timothy Snyder, on the Web site of The New York Review of Books (the article will appear in the magazine’s March 20 edition). Snyder, who is the Housum Professor of History at Yale and the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, says that protests against Yanukovych originated with leftist students last November. Snyder writes:
On January 16, the Ukrainian government, headed by President Yanukovych, tried to put an end to Ukrainian civil society. A series of laws passed hastily and without following normal procedure did away with freedom of speech and assembly, and removed the few remaining checks on executive authority. This was intended to turn Ukraine into a dictatorship and to make all participants in the Maidan, by then probably numbering in the low millions, into criminals. The result was that the protests, until then entirely peaceful, became violent. Yanukovych lost support, even in his political base in the southeast, near the Russian border.
After weeks of responding peacefully to arrests and beatings by the riot police, many Ukrainians had had enough. A fraction of the protesters, some but by no means all representatives of the political right and far right, decided to take the fight to the police. Among them were members of the far-right party Svoboda and a new conglomeration of nationalists who call themselves the Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor). Young men, some of them from right-wing groups and others not, tried to take by force the public spaces claimed by the riot police. Young Jewish men formed their own combat group, or sotnia, to take the fight to the authorities.
The AJW’s story on Page 1 this week concerns the fears of Jews in Ukraine, amid the political turmoil. JTA reported that the Giymat Rosa Synagogue in Zaporizhia, located 250 miles southeast of Kiev, was firebombed on Sunday night. The JTA story noted that Ukraine has a Jewish population of 360,000 to 400,000 people, with about a quarter of the country’s Jews living in Kiev, according to the European Jewish Congress; the Jewish Agency put the figure at 200,000.
Some accounts of the uprising in Ukraine paint a picture of anti-Semitic, fascist elements playing a major role in the opposition. That is part of the picture, as Snyder notes, but there are a variety of players, from Ukraine’s diverse assortment of ethnic groups, that are contesting for power.
Interviewed on Monday by Amy Goodman, host of the Democracy Now! radio program, Snyder pointed out that “once Yanukovych was removed, violence ceased, and now we are on a political track in which power is no longer in the hands of an interior minister who is killing people and instead is within the chambers of Parliament. Parliament has renewed the 2004 constitution, which makes the system a parliamentary system, and has called for elections in May. And in those elections, people from all over the country will be able to express themselves in a normal post-revolutionary way. And then we’ll see where things stand.”
I didn’t last long in my beginning Russian class at Macalester; but perhaps I should brush up on the language. Ukraine seems more interesting these days. It might be a time to investigate my family roots in the Old World.
— Mordecai Specktor / editor [at] ajwnews [dot] com
(American Jewish World, 2.28.14)